Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Brickbat of Great Beauty

I've avoided certain questions and polls online, being only too aware, from the way the questions were posed, of the motives of the people who posted them. Growing up where and when I did, I learned quite early on that there is always an element of guile, in even the most seemingly innocent question, so long as it is asked by an adult intending a lesson.

"Hey, man, wanna come to a bonfire this Sunday? It'll be cool."

This was, at the time I was coming of age, in the early seventies, among the most popular techniques of a generation just senior to mine, for recruiting converts, reclaiming the children thought to be already lost to an increasingly secular age, in short, of saving souls with a trick. Desperate times, evidently, called for desperate measures. There wasn't much dignity left in the older traditions, irrationalities and certainties by then. Authority had long since ceased as a sufficiency for conformity and faith. There was a sad, almost touching, desperation to the whole scheme of making, say, the creaky irrelevancies of Presbyterian doctrine, or the atrophied rigidities of United Methodism, swing. And so came "The Living Bible," "youth ministers," and, for the Catholics, the "guitar Mass." It was all too embarrassing, but it worked. We small town kids of the middle west, with nothing much to do and no safe place in which to do it, went along, most of us, like hungry bums lining up for a free turkey dinner at a Mission, knowing that sooner or later there would be a sermon, the inevitable price to be paid for a bit of rough-housing, a little live music, and free s'mores. It was something to do, anyway, before one could legally buy beer, on a summer Saturday night.

In a way, that's how I got Saved.

Indeed, for many of us, it worked too well, that bait and switch, meant only to get us with indirection back to the path. That urge to ecumenical liberality, in its underhanded practice of free "concerts," camps, and ministering counsellors, set up a false, friendly front, behind which, unfortunately we found nothing but church after all. These Sunday schools masquerading as dances, "rap" -- meant chat back then -- and games, ultimately fooled nobody much. Nothing much had changed really; behind it all were the same dusty hymnals, old women and dead ideas. Yet, from that loosening of traditional collars, I suspect, came the unanticipated, and unwelcome rise of the deceptively welcoming Evangelicals. As their mission had never been to build or support a church, but to spread The Word in anticipation of The Kingdom coming, they proved themselves, surprisingly, by far the most adaptable among the old faithful. A whole new school of charlatans, operators, and smiling, cheery bigots built their mega-churches on the ruin of communities, selling their cynical pop theology, and self-serving, greedy reading of The Bible, with straight, white teeth, new technology, in-house bands, professional marketing campaigns and accounting practice. What the Lutheran in love-beads and the priest in patchouli did not anticipate was a generation schooled in the new casual faith, refusing the maintenance of any institution that required long pants, deacons and discipline, any institution, however venerable, that did not ultimately seek to entertain them. The wholesale flight of the flock due South, into the sticky sweet embrace of the smiling fire-eaters, the would-be televangelists with better baselines, simpler slogans, and music recognizably top 40, continues. For those who still care, and believe, among whom I hasten not to be numbered, one of the bitterest ironies of that institutional pursuit of relevancy must be that the traditions of democratic faith, once best represented in America, believe it or not, by the Baptist Church, has not survived the transfer of power. It is to a blind rigidity of doctrine, unquestioned Biblical authority, old bigotries, and reactionary politics that the majority of my generation has returned, taking their children, their parents and their money with them. Dressed in flip-flops and cargo shorts, a whole wave of middle-aged Christians have fled to their great-grandfather's protestantism, only now with a better beat, and you can dance to it. Tithing is just the price of the ticket.

What is most insidious in the present lazy vulgarity of American protestantism, is not the wholesale embrace of "the gospel of abundance," that heretical redneck rejection of altruism in favor of biblically justified avarice, or even the rise of the secret, jesuitically evangelical political society so frighteningly detailed in journalist Jeff Sharlet's The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power, but in the ever wider adoption among the new faithful of the old minority faith in Christian, and by extension, American exceptionalism. This childish reading of The Holy Bible, and human history, would make believers such favorites of God as to be without any but the most adorable sin, so special, so forgivable, so ultimately and unquestionably right with the Father, as to be excused anything; from waterboarding and Bush's wars abroad, to the most casual, and destructive viciousness at home. Flat lies, intentional distortions, paranoia, the most blatant ignorance, theft, profound indifference, and the grossest hypocrisy and inhumanity, if employed to the higher purpose of securing comfort to the chosen, are entirely excusable in the babyish worldview of these schismatic brats. Any attempt at shaming these selfish simpletons, with either the New Testament or sweet reason, results in a nationwide tantrum, like the recent howling at health care forums, where at the merest suggestion that the fat, bourgeois complacency with which we've accepted the exploitation of the Republic by the insurance industry, Wall Street, and trial lawyers, can no longer and should not stand, is met not with abashed confession of uncharitable indifference and a resolve to better the lot of the least of these, His children, after all, but with irrational, unprecedented hostility. Even the impulse to act, to do anything, is indicted as anti-American. Any criticism of the status quo is twisted into a covert attempt to undermine safety, to rock the cradle off its hinges. And always, always now, any opposition to the organized, church-funded agenda of the Wild Right is cast as a persecution of Christians unequaled since the time of the pagan Caesars.

I hesitated the other night, to take a political poll on a social network, knowing it was posted to promote and perpetuate this religious hysteria in the face of even the blandest and most ineffectual reform of health care. I took the poll. I've decided it is not now enough to see through the trick, and dismiss it as such. The times require us to face the avowed foes of progress and discomfort them as best we can, even if only in such a small way. We can not now afford the comforting, Romantic assumption in Keats' poem that "into oblivion" this nonsense will naturally pass.

That is though the great pleasure of progressive thinking; our resources are not limited to just the one Book. We can call on other history, quote other poets, outdo them with truths better said since the Bronze Age. Try it, it's actually great fun. Here then, I fling that poem by the great John Keats in their simpering, sour faces! He knew you for what you were. It's time we did as well.


The church bells toll a melancholy round,
Calling the people to some other prayers,
Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,
More harkening to the sermon's horrid sound.
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some black spell; seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys, and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crown'd
Still, still they too, and I should feel a damp, -
A chill as from a tomb, did I not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp;
That 'tis their sighing, wailing ere they go
Into oblivion; - that fresh flowers will grow,
And many glories of immortal stamp.

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